I really like football.
There we are. I said it. I’m out. I’m a football fan who actually likes football. And I think we should be more prepared to say so.
There’s absolutely no question in my mind that we follow the greatest game on Earth. It’s played everywhere, by everyone, in front of an audience of everyone else. It’s not niche, it doesn’t require a horse or a boat or even a bike to play. It’s egalitarian, and as such many of the players are from deprived backgrounds; the kind of backgrounds where a crippling lack of social mobility gives very few options. But a game that can be played on your own walking down the road with a can of coke and a garden gate is a game that’s properly democratised.
And if the lowest possible level of the game is immensely satisfying, the absolute elite level can transfix like nothing else on Earth. The way Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, and co play the game, it has a combination of speed, technique, athleticism, collective brilliance, individual endeavour and balls-out excitement that you’d need to synthesise the best of an entire Olympic games to match.
Oh, sorry, was that a bit controversial? Well, fine. If I’m overtly kicking against the current countervailing sporting narrative – that the Olympics has taught football a thing or two – I’m doing it consciously, and I’m certainly not trying to paper over anything.
Because it’s impossible to love what I think of as pure football without acknowledging that there’s a deeply unpleasant side. That the players can conduct themselves appallingly, as we’ve seen throughout a year that’s been pretty poor for the game’s wider reputation. That the people at the top of the game can behave appallingly, whether that’s shilling for a 39th game played abroad or stealing Cardiff City’s identity away from its working-class fanbase on a whim brought to life by a windfall. That in order to follow football properly now you have to know about things like Creditors Voluntary Agreements, the minutiae of European employment law, and the difference between a decision taken beyond reasonable doubt and one taken on the balance of probabilities. I don’t want to call this stuff a distraction, because it’s too important to be diminished in that way. But it’s become part of the fabric of the game and it’s made football a lot harder to unselfconsciously love.
And yes the Olympics was magnificent. Yes, it’s hard not to fall for the likes of Farah, Ennis and Wiggins, not to prefer them as national ambassadors to Rooney, Terry and Ashley Cole. But let’s not forget that the week before the Olympics we were thinking, rightly, about Games lanes taking London’s infrastructure away from its citizens, about a private company making volunteers sleep under bridges, and about the potential to be thrown out of the stadium for wearing a T-shirt with Pepsi on it.
Football has the same problem that anything brilliant, popular and successful has. It’s homogenized, corporatised, marketed. The first-hand experience is taken away from the public and sold back to them piecemeal. A tiny minority make all the money and everyone else is exploited, the lumpenproletariat with their Sky subscriptions paying everyone else to take it further and further from the community experience it should be. But this isn’t unique to football. This is how capitalism works, and the most popular sport on Earth will always be the one that most vividly demonstrates the system’s major iniquities.
It’s naive to suggest that there’s something inherently wrong about one sport and inherently right about all the others. Naive, too, to suggest that one set of contestants are genetically worse than another. Football’s wealth and power encourages an insular community, a closed shop with its own rules, but one that’s under minute scrutiny at all times. No other sport on Earth is like this. Our Olympians don’t have that structure around them so of course they’re more accessible; they aren’t used to adulation so of course they’re more genuinely bowled over when it comes along. If running, or canoe slalom, or dressage had the same exposure and the same money riding on it, you bet it would develop the same personality crisis as football. The same cause would create the same symptoms.
And if football was played out of the spotlight, for lower stakes, emerging only at times when it’s easy for the nation to get together, then you’d have... well, then you’d have something very similar to women’s football, I’d say. A game played in a better, more Corinthian spirit (the Corinthians themselves were amateurs, of course) – although as the stakes raise in that game it naturally becomes more like the men’s. I’d never seen a female football player do the ubiquitous “that was a dive” ref gesture until the USA-Canada Olympic semi-final this year.
Let’s not pay too much attention to the commentators decrying the players’ absent morals until their newspapers and TV stations stop making money by setting them up, buying stories, printing and broadcasting salacious, demeaning crap. Let’s not pretend that the narrative our media gatekeepers draw up is anything other than part of the problem, that setting up a protagonist only to watch them fall hasn’t been part of storytelling since Homer. Let’s ask questions. Let’s not accept the dichotomies that are set up for us.
And let’s enjoy the football this season. Yes, we’ll probably have to do it uncomfortably, against a background of whatever unpleasantness Richard Scudamore, Dato Chan Tien Ghee, Sepp Blatter and co have cooked up for us now. Yes, sometimes we’ll feel demeaned by being party to it. Sometimes we’ll want to stop.
But let’s not forget that the thing at the centre of this late-capitalist perfect storm of greed and avarice is still one of the greatest things human beings have come together to do.
And let’s try not to be worrying about relegation by April, City. That too.